Achieving transformational change

By Steve Waddell

Steve Waddell (biography)

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?

Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below.  I then briefly explore how they interact and their roles in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To tip the balance towards transformational change, I introduce the idea of social-ecological transformations systems and seven emerging guidelines for designing them.

Incremental change

Incremental change is sometimes referred to as working inside the box. It is doing more of the same, within the current rules. It’s what happens when a company opens another store: it’s something that’s been done many times before and there’s a well-known set of activities and steps in doing it. Efficiency is a major concern. A key activity is negotiating within a set of parameters that are quite well known. The repetitiveness produces best practices.


Reform is sometimes referred to as working outside the box. It arises from dissatisfaction with the current rules and structures for doing things, with effectiveness as a major concern. This requires policy reform or organizational restructuring, which produces new reporting mechanisms and relationships, while maintaining the same goals and objectives. A key activity is mediating and discussion to identify new rules. Because of the newness the reform produces, there are no previous comparables, so that good practice, rather than best practice, is the standard.

Transformational change

Transformational change is so challenging, it raises the question: ‘is it a box at all?’. This is a question about the basic ways of thinking about issues and understanding about the way things work. Transformation involves redefinition of goals (eg., from producing energy to producing sustainable energy) which arise from a new understanding about the way things work (eg., carbon emissions result in climate change) and produce fundamental change in operating logics (eg., from ‘mining’ of nature, to harmony with nature).

Transformational change is seen to be a process which changes power structures fundamentally, with new predominating institutions organized with different purposes, processes, perspectives, and performance measures; in other words, there’s a new organizing logic. This is accompanied by a similar process internal to individuals. Together they involve new technologies, cultures and memes.

In transformation, a key activity is visioning new possibilities that require radical innovation socially and often technologically, and certainly societally. The key activity is trying to do things in fundamentally new ways – experimenting. This is often at large scale, such as with reorganizing national energy programs. And it often involves rethinking traditional boundaries (such as ‘national’). Given this radical novelty, there are continuous cycles of emergent learning.

Ioan Fazey has described ten essentials for transformational change in a previous blog post based on work that colleagues and I were also involved in.

Key elements of three types of change – incremental, reform and transformational change. Source: Moderator note (October 2021) The original source ( is no longer available; an updated version can be found at:

Interactions among the three types of change

These three types of change interact. Successful transformational experiments require reform to support destruction (eg., of carbon mining) as well as creation (eg., of sustainable energy producing). Reforms in turn produce new enabling environments and rules to support incremental change. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a very important shared sense of direction. Nevertheless, strategic clarity is lacking. There is little coherence in language and effort. ‘Transformation’ itself means many things to many people, so it’s very hard to work towards it. Action is almost all at the incremental and reform levels – there are many thousands of programs, projects and activities working for any one of the Sustainable Development Goals with strategies that will produce change, but not transformation.

Social-ecological transformations systems

Arising from experience with these challenges in achieving transformation, the Forum has developed the idea of social-ecological transformations systems. Just as we have food systems to produce food security and health systems in support of physical and mental well-being, we need powerful transformations systems to address the scale and complexity of action the Sustainable Development Goals require. Purposeful transformations systems are defined as:

…the ensemble of all those initiatives that are (explicitly, implicitly) aiming to radically change the status quo for a flourishing future.

How to develop powerful transformations systems is still unclear, but seven emerging design guidelines are:

  1. Be clear about what you mean by ‘transformation’;
  2. Initially focus on building the power of the ‘early adopters’ of transformation – don’t focus on the hesitant who can easily have a debilitating effect – and become an attractor that builds out from there;
  3. Use and further develop transformation/transitions science/knowledge about how to transform to realize the Sustainable Development Goals. This requires specific expertise, which may not be held by those whose research focuses on describing the problem;
  4. Create the transformations systems as early-adopter multi-stakeholder spaces to assemble the needed skills and resources;
  5. Attend to what is holding back transformation agents from being more successful, what we are calling the deep systems transformations challenge;
  6. Integrate personal (mindsets, abilities, spirit) transformation with external (institutions, cultures, technologies) transformation; and,
  7. Understand the work requires deep experimentation with the personal and external, and that the conventional emphasis on science as ‘objective’ actually undermines transformational ability (although conventional science and objectivity are valuable for other things).

What has your experience been with transformational change? Do you have additional suggestions for achieving it? Do the guidelines for social-ecological transformation systems resonate with you?

Biography: Steve Waddell PhD is Lead Staff of the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum, which is growing systems of people, organizations and locales, who are developing transformations systems as key infrastructure to accelerate deep change. He connects diverse groups to take collaborative action and evolve strategic directions in the context of great challenges of paradox, complexity and scale.

11 thoughts on “Achieving transformational change”

  1. Comment reproduced from Science of Science Policy Listserv:

    Thanks – does anyone know if there are good studies that have looked long term at successful transitions and when “transformational” change or incremental change are more fruitful?
    What systems are ready to flip and open to transformation? What systems are not open, so that attempts to make abrupt transformations fail?
    Why do some social change transformations seem to happen quickly even when they seem to share many of the characteristics of systems that resist transformation?

    Sometimes I fear that the effort to disrupt a very resilient or robust system might lead to short term perturbations prior to the system returning to its prior stable state. Are there cases where slow incremental efforts might actually push a system closer and closer to the new desired state?

    Susan M. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
    President, James S. McDonnell Foundation
    Visit JSMF forum on academic issues: [Moderator update – In August 2023, this link was no longer available and so the link structure has been left in place but the active link deleted: jsmf[dot]org/clothing-the-emperor]
    SMF blog

    • Posted on behalf of Steve Waddell:

      In response to your inquiry about “good studies that have looked long term at successful transitions and when “transformational” change or when incremental change is more fruitful?”

      I wonder if there might be a misunderstanding about our distinction between “incremental” and “transformational”. Increment is change within the current system, such as those who promote greater carbon fuel efficiency (eg: energy output/carbon fuel unit). Transformational is when people work for a fundamental change in the target system (eg: moving from carbon-based to carbon-neutral fuels). There is indeed a process of those who advocate incremental change becoming aware that their incremental change efforts are not going to address the fundamental problem (eg: greenhouse gas emissions) and therefore move to a transformational strategy. But this is very different from how I think you’re thinking of “incremental”.

      Distinguishing between the types of change IS a way to help develop distinct types of change when a problem is determined to require a transformational effort: creating a shared language and understanding about associated distinct strategies/methods/tools creates a much more powerful basis for purposeful transformation. So we’re simply proposing this typology in services of this goal.

      Confusion arises over our use of “incremental” and “experimenting”…perhaps we’ve chosen unfortunate terms. We emphasize “experimentation” as a core transformation activity…there’s a continual process of transformational experimentation (eg: to reach carbon-neutrality) to develop the transformation. Experimentation is something we describe as happening vis-a-vis a transformational goal (eg:carbon neutrality); it can be large scale (basically the world is experimenting with how to shift to carbon-neutral energy) or small scale. Incremental change as we use the term means change within the current paradigm (eg: of carbon-based energy)…the dynamic being refinement, implementation.

      I’m happy to supply you with further information/reference to studies. One book you might find useful: Westley, Frances, and Katharine McGowan. 2017. The evolution of social innovation: building resilience through transitions: Edward Elgar Publishing.

      • Since no one has mentioned it yet in this forum I want to encourage everyone to take a look at Brian Arthur, _The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves_ . This book offers what I view as a very helpful deconstruction of concepts around technology.

        Nathan Rosenberg and David Mowery, _Paths of Innovation: Technological Innovation in 20th Century America_ also offers useful historical context about how interconnected technical and economic systems develop

  2. Thanks Steve. A helpful overview for me. I find myself wondering about the “path to practice” that results and the need to clarify what are the questions we need to answer – in practice – to progress and sync up the work of transformation…For example we all say “get key early adopter stakeholders involved.” What does a convening group for transformative work actually look like? How many people? What is requisite diversity? What is too many that it starts to be unmanageable? How do such groups work with technology – assuming we need more than google docs to stay connected and yet not get overwhelmed. In other words, your blog provokes me to ask the “how” questions. I guess that would connect the Sol Alinsky tradition of community organizing to what we are speaking of today as systems of transformations. Thanks!

  3. The most effective Early Adopters (in terms of creating a potentially transformative network) will eagerly take on a broker role in addition to an attractor role. As well as attracting people to the cause, they will facilitate introductions into the network and help form connections within the network and between the network and others (so simultaneously strengthening and growing it). To fulfil this broker role effectively, Early Adopters will need not only to attract but also be attractive. They will need to possess valuable knowledge, skills, credibility and influence, etc., to which people are magnetically drawn. The most effective and valuable Early Adopters will, therefore, become Magnetised Brokers within the system, helping it develop and grow and perhaps become transformational.

    Some of the most “transformational systems” (all be it in a negative sense) are criminal networks, which make extensive use of Magnetised Brokers. I see no reason why something negative cannot be transformed into something positive.

    • Good insight! I happen to be reading “Say Nothing” – about the war in Northern Ireland (sectarian violence and the IRA etc). The provisional IRA (what Irish people call The Provos) saw the value of stopping the hierarchical organization that they’d copied from the regular army (likely not thinking about it much they simply used the typical hierarchical form). Then as they got more learning oriented, their leader turned instead to Mao Zedong’s more cellular, dispersed way of organizing as guerillas. Much like radical islamist groups organize too. This seems to illustrate your point (“I see no reason why something negative cannot be transformed into something positive.”) Sadly we have many more negative examples of successful organizing than we do positive. I agree we can turn the lead into gold!

  4. Distinguishing between the types of change is seen as a way to help develop distinct types of change to create a shared language which creates a much more powerful basis for purposeful transformation. So we’re simply proposing this typology in services of this goal.
    Many times people refer to what they’re doing as “transformational”, and mean quite different things. By being clearer about the types of change and the distinct processes associated with them supports more clear-headed conversation and collective action.
    Of course very often people’s intention is not “transformational”, even if that’s their impact. This is particularly true with technological change. I think it’s fair to say that the steam engine and the internet both had the impact of transformation, even if that’s not the goal of the initiators. But in terms of the process of how the transformation arises, I think that both of these are good examples of the transformation process. There never is a single moment when a transformation simply happens…it’s always a process of development. That’s why we emphasize “experimentation” with transformation…there’s a continual process of experimentation to develop the transformation. Experimentation is quite different from what we mean by “incremental” change. Experimentation is something we describe as happening vis-a-vis a transformational activity (eg: internet, steam engine); it can be large scale (basically the world is experimenting with how to shift to carbon-neutral energy) or small scale. Incremental change as we use the term means change within the current paradigm…so in this case, the examples cited do not reflect our definition of incremental change.
    The goal of course is not to get into a categorization dispute, but to have clarification through exchanges about this about meaning of core concepts and how to develop transformation. In this case the examples are get ones of a transitions process (see Multi-level perspective) of movement from niche to a new dominant regime.

  5. Dear colleagues,

    In a recent paper, entitled “Discontinuities in Citation Relations among Journals: Self-organized Criticality as a Model of Scientific Revolutions and Change,” [ OA at ] we studied incremental changes and more transformational ones in citation relations among the 10,000+ scientific journals included in the ISI set since 1994. On the basis of our findings, we suggest to return to the self-organized criticality model of Per Bak and his colleagues of the late 1980s: the knowledge base can be considered as a large set of meta-stable constructs which are continuously disturbed by new knowledge claims bringing also new citation relations. “Avalanches” of variable size can then be expected. The effects, however, are local; the meta-stable regions operate in parallel. The overall system remains tending towards meta-stability at “the edge of chaos” because of the ongoing flux of new manuscripts creating and rewriting journal-journal relations in terms of citations at different scales.

    Bak & Chen (1991, at pp. 26f.) used the example of a pile of sand on which one grain of sand is dropped regularly: “Now and then, when the slope becomes too steep somewhere on the pile, the grains slide down, causing a small avalanche. […] When a grain of sand is added to a pile in the critical state, it can start an avalanche of any size, including a ‘catastrophic’ event. But most of the time, the grain will fall so that no avalanche occurs.” Even the largest avalanches involve only a small proportion of the grains in the pile, and therefore even catastrophic avalanches cannot cause the slope of the pile to deviate significantly from the critical slope.

    The model leads to log-log curves (which we find when studying changes in the data). This is also called 1/f or pink noise. In contrast to white noise, 1/f noise suggests that the dynamics of the system are strongly influenced by past events. The knowledge base has a history of construction and reorganizations over time. Large transformations are a limiting case, but are rare, while minor avalanches are frequent.


    • Bak, P., & Chen, K. (1991). Self-Organized Criticality. Scientific American, 264(1), 46-53.
    • Leydesdorff, L., Wagner, C., & Bornmann, L. (2018). Discontinuities in Citation Relations among Journals: Self-organized Criticality as a Model of Scientific Revolutions and Change. Scientometrics, 116(1), 623-644. doi: 10.1007/s11192-018-2734-6

    Loet Leydesdorff
    Professor emeritus, University of Amsterdam
    Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) ;

  6. I am not convinced that the categories here are well defined, coherent, or logically distinct, at least as relates to technological innovation.

    Take the steam engine. One might argue that this general purpose technology was a linchpin of the Industrial Revolution, and presumably transformational. But the reality is that the steam engine was not one single technology. It took more than a century of gradual transformational change to go from early atmospheric engines to the application of steam in river transport or railroads. More recently, the internet might be termed transformational, but it is again an enormous assemblage of discrete and interlocking components. In retrospect we see this as a single technology, but that is not how change is experienced.

    Both of these cases reflect the way in which gradual incremental changes eventually resulted in transformational differences. It may be helpful to say that some paths lead to major effects while others don’t, and this may be helpful descriptively, but I don’t think we have any basis for confidence in our ability to predict upfront which paths will be transformational and which not.

  7. Comment reproduced from the Science of Science Policy Listserv

    Just a reminder from an intellectual historian – a reminder that may appear irrelevant to many.

    Transformational change, transformational innovation, etc. These are new fashionable terms in the recent scholarly literature. But what is really new? Such a distinction emerged in the 1920-30s (Simon Kuznets, Colum Gilfillan, Emil Lederer…): ‘invention’ versus ‘improvement’, and gave rise to the most popular distinction of the following decades ‘revolutionary/radical/major innovation’ versus ‘minor/incremental innovation’ (this is only a sample of terms used; others include: basic, architectural, etc.). The challenge to ‘innovative ideologists’, to use Quentin Skinner term (those who promote new ideas in reaction to the old), is to go beyond the rhetoric and show to what extent the content of the new label is really new and what meaning it has that makes it relevant or more relevant than previous ones. Otherwise, we coined brands only.


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